Given all that he already has accomplished, it’s easy to forget that Jay Johnson is just getting started.
Wednesday will mark his two-year anniversary as coach of the Arizona Wildcats. In that time, he has guided the Wildcats to within a hit of a national championship – when they weren’t even supposed to qualify for the postseason – and a second consecutive NCAA Tournament berth.
The latter appearance ended sooner than hoped: Arizona got knocked out of the Lubbock Regional on Sunday with a 9-3 loss to Sam Houston State. Still, the Wildcats played in back-to-back postseasons for the first time since 2011-12, and they were the only Pac-12 school that could make such a claim.
So is Arizona ahead of schedule? On schedule? Somewhere in between?
Try none of the above. Johnson won’t allow himself to think in those terms.
“It’s a day-at-a-time deal for me,” he said earlier in the season. “It’s the same thing we tell our players.
“I haven’t given any thought to a timetable. A lot of you guys asked me last year: Are you ahead of schedule? The schedule is to be awesome that day.
“Do I have a vision? Do I coach against a vision of what I want our program to become? For sure.”
Johnson knows what he wants his program to look like – basically, an extension of what it looks like now. How the 2018 roster will shape up isn’t quite as clear.
Arizona will lose three seniors who helped form the nucleus of Johnson’s first two teams: starting pitcher JC Cloney, shortstop Louis Boyd and second baseman Kyle Lewis. Two prominent juniors are projected as high-round picks in next week’s MLB draft: first baseman JJ Matijevic and center fielder Jared Oliva.
Then there are the players Johnson dubbed “fringe juniors” — draftable talents with major-league ability who could improve their stock by returning for another season. The main ones are pitcher Cameron Ming and outfielder Cal Stevenson. Sophomore catcher Cesar Salazar also is eligible for the draft because he’s 21.
“I’m very transparent with them: I want them to return,” Johnson said, careful not to reference any specific player. “I don’t know that they’re in the spot where an organization is going to make them a priority the way they’d be a priority at the University of Arizona in 2018. We need to get lucky with a few of those things.”
Having Ming, Stevenson and Salazar back could make the difference between the ’18 Wildcats being good or great. Sophomore DH Alfonso Rivas – who likely will move to first base – will anchor the lineup. Three freshmen – third baseman Nick Quintana, middle infielder Cameron Cannon and outfielder Matt Fraizer – will be expected to take a significant step forward.
“There’s some young players on the team that were part-time players that I’m excited about,” Johnson said.
“You could actually look at the diamond, and it might be a little less experienced but more talented in some cases. I’m very excited about the potential that we have at Arizona.”
If Arizona fell short in any one particular area this season, it was pitching. The Wildcats never developed the consistency or depth needed to make a serious postseason charge.
If Ming returns, Arizona has the makings of a strong three-man rotation featuring the left-hander and righties Cody Deason and Michael Flynn. Both will be juniors next season.
Deason did not pitch well in his first or last outings but was splendid in between. He allowed seven earned runs in 1 2/3 innings against Sam Houston State on Sunday.
Combined with his 2017 debut – six earned runs in two-thirds of an inning vs. Eastern Kentucky in February – Deason had a 50.21 ERA in those two games. In his 19 other appearances, his ERA was 1.75.
“He’ll get better from that,” Johnson said of Deason’s final start. “He’ll learn from that. And he’ll be a big part of our team in 2018.”
Flynn developed into an effective late-inning reliever – Johnson described him as the Wildcats’ “go-to guy” – but has starting experience and the physical and mental makeup to become a top-of-the-rotation pitcher.
• The three-day MLB draft begins next Monday. The Wildcats’ top recruit, right-handed pitcher Matt Sauer of Santa Maria, Calif., is projected as a late first-round pick, making it unlikely he will enroll at Arizona.
• The Wildcats struck out only five times in their final two games. They left 18 runners on base – 29 in all in three games in Lubbock. “We hit the ball well for three days,” Johnson said. “We hit it at people a lot.”
• Arizona finished 11-8 in one-run games. The Wildcats were 24-9 vs. right-handed starting pitchers, 14-12 vs. lefties.
• Sam Houston State ended up winning the Lubbock Regional, upsetting host and No. 5 national seed Texas Tech 4-3 on Monday.